THOSE who are old enough to remember the real root causes of the riots of May 13, 1969, will remember the dreaded National Operations Council (Mageran) formed two days later and headed by the then deputy prime minister Tun Abdul Razak Hussein.
There were two things about the Mageran – it effectively sidelined the then prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, who spearheaded both the independence of Malaya from Britain on August 31, 1957 and the formation of Malaysia on September 16, 1963.
Second, it marked the end of democracy in Malaysia as we previously knew it, and highlighted a new era where unprecedented policies were bulldozed through on to a terrified nation traumatised by the racial riots.
There is evidence that the riots were engineered. Those who lived near the area know that the riots started from a gathering at the house of then Selangor menteri besar Datuk Harun Idris in Kg Baru. The demonstrators fanned out into the Chow Kit Road area nearby. Destruction and killing ensued.
The Mageran effectively sidelined then prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman and led to a new era where unprecedented policies were bulldozed through without parliamentary oversight.”
The riots and the Mageran followed poor results by Umno and its partners in the Alliance, the forerunner to Barisan Nasional, in Peninsular Malaysia. Elections in Sabah and Sarawak were suspended following the emergency.
Penang was lost to Gerakan, then in the opposition, while PAS took Kelantan. There was a tie for seats in the Selangor assembly, while no party or coalition had a majority in Perak. Alliance for the first time saw its popular vote dip below 50%.
Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad himself, who had declared he did not need non-Malay support to win, lost to PAS’ Yusof Rawa at Kota Setar Selatan in 1969, a seat he had won in 1964.
It is not surprising that former prime minister Dr Mahathir, suggested that the country set up the Mageran again – he was part of a group who pushed for Tunku Abdul Rahman to step down.
He was initially suspended as an Umno member for writing a letter demanding Tunku Abdul Rahman’s resignation. But Tun Razak revived his political fortunes, readmitting him into Umno, giving him a seat at Kubang Pasu to contest.
Soon after he won in 1974, he was brought into the cabinet as education minister, probably the most meteoric rise for anyone within Umno. Importantly it indicated his very close ties with Tun Razak.
After the Mageran was disbanded some 18 months after the riots, Tun Razak forced a coalition with most of the opposition parties such PAS, Gerakan and the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), giving birth to Barisan Nasional (BN). DAP stayed out.
MCA and MIC had by then become toothless partly because of their poor election showing, and did not object to the many race-based policies that the government implemented, far exceeding the parameters set by the New Economic Policy (NEP), which sought to redress racial imbalance while eliminating poverty irrespective of race.
Dr Mahathir became prime minister for the first time in 1981, 12 years after the May 13 riots. During his time, he was responsible for the emasculation of the judiciary in 1987/88 and was notorious for the infamous Operation Lalang where over 100 people were detained under the Internal Security Act, including many opposition politicians. Both consolidated and lengthened his stay as prime minister.
Dr Mahathir is used to undemocratic means and abuses of the process of law to stay in power.
There are two reasons why Dr Mahathir wants the return of the Mageran and suggested as much to the king who is meeting political leaders.
First, it gives him a chance to return as head of the Mageran. He expressed his desire to return in that capacity if he was needed. Second, it would perpetuate the rule of the right wing Malays within Umno, Bersatu and PAS and therefore all that comes with.
That includes the continued abuse of the NEP, and corruption and patronage at the highest levels combined with incompetence which enriches some Malays and non-Malay cronies at the expense of the majority, both Malay and non-Malay.
Both outcomes – the Mageran and Dr Mahathir heading it would be disastrous – for the country because it would mean dictatorship and putting too much power into the hands of one man. And it would not be something the king can decide – it is not under his purview although he can advise that it be done.
What is now very clear is that the emergency perpetuates the reign of a government which may not have the support of Parliament anymore. It is also clear that the emergency is not required to fight Covid-19 – there are many provisions for that in existing legislation.
Malaysia is probably the only country which suspended parliamentary democracy to fight Covid-19 instead of getting all parties to jointly rally against it, which they would have been prepared to do in the interest of the country. It was an emergency to stop any threat to the government of Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin.
The focus now should be on expiry of the emergency in August and the transition to parliamentary rule. The current Perikatan Nasional (PN) government can then show it has the support of the majority. If it does not have the confidence of Parliament, then the constitutional process takes over.
Under the federal constitution, the king can pick a person who he thinks is likely to be able to form a government.
Section 43 (2) says: “The cabinet shall be appointed as follows, that is to say: (a) the Yang di-Pertuan Agong shall first appoint as perdana menteri (prime minister) to preside over the cabinet a member of the House of Representatives who in his judgment is likely to command the confidence of the majority of the members of that house; and (b) he shall on the advice of the prime minister appoint other menteri (Ministers) from among the members of either houses of Parliament”
The person picked need not necessarily be one who has an outright majority but can be one in the judgment of the king “who is likely to command the confidence of the majority of the members.”
However, this person must eventually command the confidence of Parliament. Section 43 (4) says: “If the prime minister ceases to command the confidence of the majority of the members of the House of Representatives, then, unless at his request the Yang di-Pertuan Agong dissolves Parliament, the prime minister shall tender the resignation of the cabinet.”
If the PN government collapses, the next largest bloc is Pakatan Harapan which at last count has 88 seats comprising 35 from PKR, 42 from DAP and 11 from Amanah. All three parties have unequivocally said that the leader of the coalition is Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.
While there are no constitutional precedents for the current situation in Malaysia, there are cases of this in other countries. The convention or usual practice in other countries is to give the chance to form a minority government to the group which has the highest support in terms of MPs.
According to Wikipedia, in the 2017 election in the UK, the Conservatives won the most seats but lost their majority in the House of Commons. The Conservative Party, then led by Theresa May, formed a minority government, with 317 seats, on 9 June 2017.
On June 26 the same year, the Conservatives made a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party for a “confidence and supply” arrangement. For much of Boris Johnson’s leadership up until the 2019 general election, the government was a minority government.
In an earlier instance, according to Wikipedia, the Labour Party, led by Harold Wilson, formed a minority government for seven months after the elections of February 1974.
That situation lasted until the prime minister called another election in October that year, following which the Labour government obtained a tiny majority of three.
The following administration also became a minority government after the collapse of the pact between the Labour Party and the Liberal Party in 1977. The then British prime minister James Callaghan’s government fell in March 1979 as the result of a vote of no confidence which was carried by a single vote.
We cannot have a new Mageran each time Umno loses ground. In the last instance in 2018 Umno-BN actually lost the elections fair and square to PKR-Pakatan Harapan. There were no riots this time, there was no crisis. Covid-19 was a medical emergency and should have been dealt with as such.
The problem was the backdoor government which had no legitimate right to govern and was cobbled together between a number of disparate forces whose only aim was to come into power, and having done so, to engineer their man to the top position. It was a government formed by party-hopping.
It is now obvious that they are breaking apart. The only way to deal with it is to allow the due constitutional process to proceed – the rule of law – with no interference, with honesty and in good faith. It is high time we moved on to democracy which requires those who win elections to be in power.
If elections need to be held – and many countries have held elections during Covid-19 – let it be so. But let there only be online campaigning, and voting, which may result in a reduction of corrupt practices such as vote buying. Where there is a will, there is a way. – The Vibes, June 11, 2021
P. Gunasegaram says the abuse of the due process of law is one of the main causes of Malaysia’s problems. He is executive director of research and advocacy group Sekhar Institute and editorial consultant of the Vibes